How to Handle Alcoholism in the Workplace


Your office superstar starts making sloppy mistakes and calling in sick. Their irritability seems a bit more than just the Monday Blues. You notice “pony bottles” of Popov in the restroom garbage can.

What can you do if you notice signs of alcoholism in someone you work with?

Matters of addiction require a gentle approach. Depending on the stage of the disease, your co-worker may deny they have a problem. They may grow defensive and accuse you of meddling in their business. So how can you protect everyone’s safety, including the staff member who’s struggling?

1. Take Note of Safety Issues

The course of action you take depends on the industry you work in. If you have a position in a factory, co-worker alcoholism can lead to workplace accidents or death. You don’t want someone intoxicated running a forklift or other piece of heavy machinery.

Even if you work in an office, drinking on the job can affect the morale of other employees. It negatively impacts productivity and can lead to costly errors. The employee’s behavior may not warrant immediate intervention if they push a pencil, but over time, it can tarnish the company image.

2. Understand the Early Warning Signs

How do you know if someone is drinking on the job? If they’re in the early stages of addiction, they may call out sick often due to hangovers. Exercise caution about jumping to conclusions.

It takes years to receive accurate diagnoses of various diseases and time to treat them. An employee with a migraine or multiple sclerosis may take copious sick time to undergo diagnostic tests. Their absence may have nothing to do with substance abuse.

As alcoholism advances, people develop tolerance to the substance. They may experience tremors or even hallucinations if they go too long without drinking. They may fall asleep on the job or withdraw from their colleagues.

3. Ask Them to Lunch or Coffee

If you suspect a colleague has an addiction, take time to talk in a nonthreatening location. If you’re a supervisor, you can call them into your office privately — but reassure them you’re not about to fire them. Many people turn to the bottle to cope with workplace stress.

Are you a concerned co-worker? You don’t want to pry into another person’s affairs. However, you don’t know what’s going on with someone until you ask them. Invite them out to lunch or for coffee. Tell them, “I’ve noticed you’ve seemed distracted lately. Is there anything going on?”

Don’t expect them to confess to addiction. They may indicate they’re going through a difficult divorce or dealing with bankruptcy. Even if they’re not abusing alcohol or drugs, they’ll likely appreciate your support.

4. Submit a Report to HR

As an employee, you have a responsibility to report witnessed or suspected drug abuse. This principle doesn’t mean going to your supervisor if you see Barb in accounting tip back one too many at happy hour.

However, if you’ve noticed her stumbling and slurring, or you find empties in the restroom after she’s gone in, you should file. This action creates a paper trail to support later employment decisions.

Check your handbook for reporting procedures. Some HR departments allow you to submit suspected abuse confidentially. Doing so protects you from backlash if the individual reacts with hostility.

5. Guide Them to Employee Assistance Programs

Many workplaces offer employee assistance programs for individuals suffering from all matter of problems. However, some staff members may shy away from using them out of fear of retaliation. If you’re a supervisor, regularly stress that such programs are free and confidential to use.

If your workplace is small, you may not have a specific program for troubled staff members. Does your employer offer health insurance coverage? If they do, suggest your colleague contact them for a list of covered therapists and programs. If your workplace doesn’t extend coverage, free support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous can help.

6. Offer Them Paid Time to Heal

It’s easy to say, “Check yourself into a treatment program,” to someone with an addiction. However, doing so isn’t often economically feasible. The recent government shutdown revealed that 78% of U.S. workers live paycheck to paycheck. The individual still needs to pay rent and keep their lights on, which is problematic if they lack paid leave.

If you have the authority, extend PTO to staff members who need inpatient care to recover. Doing so doesn’t directly impact your bottom line as much as replacing an employee, especially if they’re a key player. It also sends a powerful message that you care about them as human beings, not merely as cogs in the machine.

7. Let Them Go Gently — and Give Them Hope

Sometimes, you have to let a struggling employee go. If you must, do so in a way that allows them to retain their dignity. Conduct the meeting on a Friday afternoon. This way, it won’t seem as unusual if they leave a little early, and they have the weekend to cope with their loss.

Offer to write them a recommendation based on their behavior before their substance abuse. Many terminated staff members fear negative repercussions when they try to get another job. This terror can lead them deeper into despair and the addiction spiral.

Handling Alcoholism in the Workplace Requires Tact and Empathy

By exercising empathy, you can keep workplace alcoholism from impacting your bottom line. The key is acting quickly and compassionately.

Author Bio:

Dylan Bartlett, aka, “The Regular Guide,” writes about a broad variety of topics on his blog. Check out Just a Regular Guide for more, or follow him on Twitter @theregularguide for frequent updates!

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